Monday, March 30, 2015

Movie Reviews - Free Movie Weekend

When I first got cable TV I immediately discovered that while have 30-50 channels (oh, back in the day) was really cool, what was TRULY amazing were the free weekends from the movie channels.  Showtime and HBO and Cinemax would throw open the doors to the kingdom for 2-3 days and you could watch all kinds of cool things!  That's how I, and a great many other people, discovered the movie "Eddie and the Cruisers", for example.  Today it's usually a way for me to catch up on some more recent movies that I missed in the theaters.

A little while back I got the chance to score a whole series of movies with my new DVR feature from my buddies at Dish Network.

Transcendence (2014) - I was all set to love this film.  The story of a man's consciousness being transferred into a supercomputer with Johnny Depp playing the lead.  But it never quite comes together for me.  The story is awkward and lurches a bit, the characters never quite come together.  It's an interesting movie that leaves you think "If only...".

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Gravity (2013) - I've heard all the scientific complaints with this movie and agree that a lot of it is just painfully wrong.  But that misses the point for me.  This was an edge of your seat thrill ride of a movie.  I really wish I'd seen it on the big screen because it would have been so much better at a more appropriate scale.  George Clooney and Sandra Bullock have to carry all 91 minutes of this film on their own and they are astounding.  Of all the movies from this weekend, this was the one that blew me away.  And a great reminder to Hollywood that movies don't have to be three hours long.

Rating - **** Recommended

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - The story of Walt Disney(Tom Hanks) bringing the story of Mary Poppins to the big screen with the reluctant help of her creator P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson).  As someone who was glued to the TV Sunday evenings for "The Wonderful World of Color" I grew up with Walt Disney in my living room.  So I approached this with a certain trepidation.  Hanks does a wonderful job, as does Thompson, in creating real people for these legendary characters.  Did not quite know what to expect and was utterly charmed and enthralled by the movie (even if I'm not a huge fan of the Mary Poppins movie itself)

Rating - **** Recommended

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) - Loosely based on the life of an actual butler at the White House, what's not to love about this movie?  Great cast (Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave and another handful of quality actors), a great script, beautifully directed by Lee Daniels (his name is included in the title not from directorial ego but because of an asinine dispute with a movie studio over a film made three generations ago) and just generally outstanding.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

From My Shelves - Cartoon - In The Living Room

Cartoon - In the Living Room (1996) - It's so easy to think that all the great music in the world gets its due.  That simply creating something truly wonderful is all you need to find fame and fortune.  The reality is that all too often the fame and fortune go to people creating stuff that is safe, predictable and ultimately forgettable.  The problem is that until very recently the chance of you finding any of those wonderful, working musicians of the world who are creating in relative anonymity has been very hard.

Unless you had a friend who said, "Hey, listen to this".

My very good friend Tom introduced me to a band he worked with in State College, PA called Cartoon. While I absolutely trusted Tom's judgement when it came to music (some of my favorites were groups he had turned me on to before) I spent a lot of time listening to mediocre music as part of my work in radio.  Even bands that were very good in person sometimes didn't translate well when recorded.

I should have known better.

It was the kind of close harmony, folk inspired music that I have loved all my life.  The  song writing was superb, the performances flawless and the recording was top quality.  These were dedicated, quality artists producing the kind of work they loved and a dedicated band of fans made them perennial regional favorites in central PA and beyond.

The first time I listened I was delighted.  Then there was the second, and third, and fourth and beyond.  I've lost track of how many times I've listened to this CD.  It's on the short list of go-to music when I want to hear the stuff I love, the stuff that brings me joy.

Personal favorites are Lady Jamaica, Carolina One Time, (I Shall Carry) Water, Catalog Lady, and Let the Radio Play.  That's a nice cross section of the style and the sense of humor that made Cartoon the crowd favorite for so long.  Oh, and if you pay attention you'll even hear Tom's voice on one cut.  I'll let you discover that one for yourself.

Sadly, at least for their fans, Cartoon has retired.  Their final performance was in 2012, appropriately at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts (article and interview here).  After 32 years it was time to move on.  I can understand that and respect it.

Just as long as I can keep playing this favorite album recording.  Cartoon's music is still available through BandCamp at the link at the very top of this post.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Movie Review - On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) - Secret Agent 007, James Bond (George Lazenby) finds himself drawn into a "salvage mission" to try and help the troubled adult daughter of a Corsican criminal boss.  As he and Tracie (Diana Rigg) discover the beginnings of a real romance, Bond continues his hunt of his arch-enemy Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who is trying to bring the world economy to its knees.

This is the "other" Bond.  Not Connery, not the dreadful "pretty boy" Bonds of Brosnan and Moore, nor the rather flat but adequate Dalton and certainly not the true "blunt instrument" Bond of Daniel Craig.  George Lazenby is the only movie actor to take on Bond in a non-comedy version who appears in only a single movie (David Niven took a comic turn as an aging 007 in the 1967 version of Casino Royale).  I have been a Bond fan since I was a pre-teen.  I've read all the original books, seen most of the movies (the exceptions were otherwise all in the Brosnan/Moore years), and consider myself a little bit of a purist.  For me the best Bond remains Sean Connery.  He brings a deadly edge to the character even as he tosses of the terse quip and fondles the Bond girls (his Bond Girls are also the best as well).  I will grant that Daniel Craig has really done a fabulous job of expressing the deadly aspect of 007.  It should never be forgotten that what makes Bond special is his "license to kill".  It is in one of John Gardner's continuation novels where Secret Service head "M" says that there are times when Her Majesty's government requires a "blunt instrument".  Connery and Craig bring that aspect through with the greatest effect.

Lazenby isn't bad, however.  I'd put him in the Timothy Dalton middle ground with Lazenby perhaps just a bit a head.

This is a very faithful adaptation of the novel, which is one of my personal favorites.  This is the book where we see greater depth of character for Bond.  He's tired, nearly mentally defeated as the story begins but finds new things to stir his blood as time goes on.  His discovery of a woman with a sense of adventure that could match his own in Tracie takes him somewhere unexpected.  Savalas is underwhelming as Blofeld, made even worse by the modern parody of "Dr. Evil" from the "Austin Powers" movies.  On the whole they did a very nice job until the very end.  They stayed faithful to the ending (a personal favorite again) but it fell flat in Lazenby's hands.  Unfortunate.

This movie actually did very well at the box office.  Lazenby's reviews have been decidedly mixed over the years.  Some folks rank even below the "pretty boys" which is criminal in my opinion.  Lazenby believed that the secret agent genre was a dead issue in the more liberated '70s and declined to continue in the role.  That's truly unfortunate given what followed for 30 years.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review - Closure (A Jack Randall Thriller)

Closure - Randall Wood  (2013) - FBI Agent Jack Randall finds himself assigned to a high profile case in a very peculiar manner, by the killer.  High profile people are being killed with frightening efficiency across the country.  It's clear that it's all the same killer but finding the connections is a challenge.  From New York City to the deserts of Nevada with many stops in between  Randall is constantly one step behind the vigilante killer and forced to face some of his own personal history.

If you like classic thriller novels put this one on your list.  Wood does a great job of creating believable characters, putting them in a fleshed out story and then slamming his foot down on the accelerator.   It's been a while since I have been as wholly pleased by a thriller novel as I was with this one.  The kind of book that makes you resent the need for sleep.

Yeah, I liked it.

I will admit that right at the end I realized I had one major chunk of uncomfortable I had to deal with along the way.  The "bad guy" is a vigilante, someone who has decided to take justice into his own hands.  That's not a spoiler since Wood follows both sides of the story and the motivation is pretty clear from very early on.  What the author has done that is quite clever is to make this a triangular story.  It's not good guys versus bad guys.  The very clear "bad guys" are the people getting killed.  The greatest weakness in the story is that the victims are cardboard cutouts.  They aren't really human, they have no depth and no nuance.  They're just scum, so you don't really mind when they get killed.  The other two sides are the vigilante and the FBI team Randall is leading.

There is a cathartic aspect to the vigilante's mission.  In the end all we really want is for the REALLY bad guys to get what's coming to them.  Unfortunately, if we raise the vigilante to the role of hero, the very fabric of civilization is torn.  We are no longer a society of laws.  There's no good ending to that story.

I think I know where Randall Wood may come down on that discussion.  But you know, I can't say I'm sure.  He made me think, he made me uncomfortable with how I felt sometimes about the characters and what they did.

And that's called good writing.

If the victims had been more like actual 3D people, "Closure" would be damn near perfect.  I'll keep my eyes open for Agent Randall in the future.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, March 16, 2015

Movie Review - My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) - A family moves to rural Japan so they can be close to their ailing mother.  The girls, Satsuki and Mei, begin to explore their new world and discover that some amazing creatures live in the wood that borders their home.

Wow.  Where to even begin with this movie?  It is the work of legendary Japanese animator Hiyao Miyazaki and the renowned Studio Ghibli (rumors have flown around the studio following Miyazaki's retirement last year.  It appears that the future for the Studio Ghibli may still to be determined).  Eight of the fifteen most successful Japanese anime movies of all time are from Studio Ghibli.  This is a prime example of why they have succeeded so well.

If you've always wondered about the word "anime" it's actually pretty simple.  In Japan it is a shortened form of the word for "animation".  So any kind of animated movie is anime.  For the rest of the world it has come to mean "Japanese animation".  Nothing really complex.

I was amazed from the first seconds of the movie itself with the incredible beauty of the animation.  Growing up in the '60s I watched a lot of animation where it was obvious that the background got as little attention as possible.  The exact opposite is on display here.  The backgrounds alone are worth watching.  Wonderfully detailed, beautifully colored, they are truly art.  It works to create a visual world that want to step into so you can be surrounded by that beauty.

Equally stunning is the perfectly captured movement and character of the two little girls at the center of the story.  They move and react like real children, not movie children.  From her joyful idolization of her big sister, to her sleepy grumpiness and mangling the Japanese word for "troll" from tororo to the title's totoro, Mei is a charming and delightful little girl.  Satsuki stands straddling the border between being a little girl and growing up.  She takes her role as big sister very seriously but is still open to the wonder of meeting the spirits of the wood.

When the totoro enter the story it brings with it a sense of wonder and whimsy that avoids becoming saccharine or overblown.  Miyazaki manages the balance absolutely fabulously.

I could go on and on and on about this moving.  It was utterly engrossing.  I was totally charmed.  That's the word for this movie.  Wonderful for children and adults alike.  Bring your sense of wonder and be ready to be charmed.

Rating - ***** Highest Recommendation  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Best of the Web - Tertium Squid (blog)

(Best of the Web is an occasional series of posts where I look at those places on the Internet that I think represent the best of what the Web can be.  The selections are entirely personal)

Tertium Squid - Blogs are passé.  The cool kids have either moved on or try to pretend they don't really have anything to do with them any more.  The reality is that the simple blog is largely gone.  The aimless personal journal still exists but they get exactly the level of attention they deserve, which is virtually none.

No, for those of us still blogging (like yours truly) what has been required is more of a focus.  For me this blog has been a way to stay in touch with the media that I love so much and that which has been so much a part of my life.

Years ago I stumbled on the blog of a Baptist pastor from San Antonio, Texas.  He went by "Real Live Preacher" back then and he wasn't like any Baptist preacher I'd ever come across before (or since).  His blog was well written, deeply passionate and with an intellectual depth that was rare, then and now.  I became a regular reader and even purchased the book that grew out of that blog.

Along the way things changed for "Real Live Preacher".  I won't try and summarize his story here in a few words.  It's not my story to tell and I can only do it an injustice by trying to create a "blurb" version.  The end result was that "Real Live Preacher" went away.  For me the Internet was a little bit less special.  For those of us who loved his writing we looked for the name Gordon Atkinson on places like Christian Century and The High Calling among others.  Then a couple years ago (? I've reached that age when time is telescoping on me) along came:

Another place to enjoy the thoughts of a man I would love to sit down over a beer and chat with some day.

So what's the deal with this month's BOTW?  I think Gordon's blogs and writings represent one of the best things happening on the Internet.  Is this the BEST BLOG ON THE INTERNET?  Probably not, might be some days.  I chose Tertium Squid to represent a whole category of writing out there.  People with a passion for what they do and a passion for using words (love them word lovin' people) to help us dive a little deeper.  Deeper into all kinds of things.  I'd love to believe that this blog might make that cut along the way.

I do know that I have standards against which I measure myself.

This is one of those.

There's some great writing out there.  Go and find it.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Movie Review - The Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire Grill (1996) - After serving time in a Maine prison, a young woman (Alison Elliot) chooses to move to the small town of Gilead, Maine to begin her life anew.  There she is, somewhat reluctantly, taken in by a crotchety older woman (Ellen Burstyn) who runs the local restaurant.  Together they will explore the wounds that brought them both to that time and place.

As I mentioned a couple weeks of go, this movie is part of a trio of movies in my mind (with "Mystic Pizza" and "Bagdad Cafe").  They are movies centered on female characters and their relationships.  They are all movies of redemption to one degree or another.  Unsuprisingly none of them are "major motion pictures" but small budget movies that create so very much out of so little.

The movie is basically all about Percy (Allison) and Hannah (Burstyn).  Other than a nice minor character role by Marcia Gay Harden (who plays Shelby, the wife of Hannah's nephew and is the facilitator for Percy's fitting into Gilead) everyone else, most especially the men, are bit parts in this movie.  That doesn't mean that they aren't just cardboard cutouts.  The nephew, a love interest for Percy and the sheriff are nicely crafted supporting roles.  But this is Percy and Hannah's movie.

Percy is a character who lacks an anchor in her life.  A tragic event in her young life put her in jail for manslaughter and she spent her time in prison dreaming of a different place.  A beautiful place that could be hers.  Working for the Maine Tourism Board while in prison has created an idyllic view of Maine that speaks to her at a deeper level and she comes to Gilead hoping to find that place.  What she finds is initial rejection, mysteries and perhaps the place of her dreams.  Just as Jasmine lifts those around her in "Bagdad Cafe", Percy does the same in Gilead.

It was interesting to discover that Alison Elliot was a big time fashion model.  She and director Lee David Zlotoff let Percy be Percy visually.  She is mousy and beaten down with just a spark below the surface.  As Percy grows into her true self she becomes more beautiful until in her final moment in the movie she has become truly stunning.  It is a wonderful and subtle artifice in the telling of the story.

"The Spitfire Grill" did very well when first shown at the Sundance Festival.  Well enough that the folks at Castle Rock Entertainment offered ten million dollars for the distribution rights.  Critics were underwhelmed and audience response was tepid as well.  While I will grant you that the ending is the weakest part of the  film, I give credit for refusing to go for a "Hollywood ending".  That probably dented the audience response (there is a musical version with a different, more upbeat ending that I won't even dignify by watching.  Change the ending and the movie has nothing.)  The movie deserves better than it has gotten I think.  Is there a certain naivete to the story?  Sure, but it doesn't need to be any more sophisticated.  This is the story of regular people in a small town.  Too often we want to polish that up rather than allowing the story and characters to be who and what they really are.

The story is flawed by a weak ending but the characters are ones you will believe and care about.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review - Richmond Noir

Richmond Noir - edited by Andrew Blosson, Brian Castleberry and Tom De Haven (2010) - This is a wonderful collection of short stories done in the noir style.  As Tom Robbins (author of among others "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues".  Robbins grew up in Richmond and has a story in the collection) says in his foreword, when he thinks of Richmond he thinks of alleys.  " memories of Richmond's noir.  Which is to say, colored with seamy urban romance and suave big-city vice, the twin elements most responsible for the seductive throb at the murky heart of noir".
alleys tend to be colored with shades of

The stories feature well known locations in Richmond, Hollywood cemetery, Belle Isle, Church Hill, Shockoe Slip, Jackson Ward, the West End and more.  They are then broken down into four categories - Nevermore, Numbers, Neurosis and Nonsuch.  While a relatively small city (the greater Richmond population is around a million souls), the authors realize that it offers a rich lode of concepts, history and people for their creative exercise.  State Capitol, heart of rebellions of both white and black residents, with plenty of anger, angst and the kind of  political chicanery that would do Chinatown proud, this is Richmond.

"Richmond Noir" is part of an ongoing series of city based noir collections by Akashic Books.  They have noir collections for Brooklyn, Baltimore, Boston, Belfast, Mexico City, Wall Street, Dallas and more.  I think they are to be applauded for celebrating so many great locations, for offering authors the chance to write about them and for expanding the noir genre.

In the eight months that I've lived in the River City I have fallen ever more deeply in love with it.  Richmond is beautiful, with a deep, complicated history.  It is a city that is both hometown in nature and sophisticated big city.  More than anything else Richmond strikes me as comfortable with itself, even with its complexities and contradictions.  It is certainly a city that loves a good party!

It was at one of the smaller parties that I stumbled on this collection.  One of the local craft breweries, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, teamed up with a local independent bookstore, Chop Suey Books, to highlight a couple dozen local authors.  You could get yourself a glass of whatever caught your eye (and Hardywood offers a very nice selection), wander around the tables to chat with the authors and then snag whichever book took your fancy.  My family went home with at least a half dozen.  This was the second "local author" book fair that we've hit in the region and I think it is a great way to support local writers (and book stores and craft brewers!).  Total respect to all involved.  I enjoy visiting and exploring all the truly local options there here.

If you've never been to Richmond this book could serve as an interesting introduction to the city.  If you know RVA you'll love the local feel.  And if you're a fan of noir, this is a great addition to your library.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, March 2, 2015

Movie Review - Bagdad Cafe

Bagdad Cafe (1987) - On the same day that Brenda (CCH Pounder), a disgruntled cafe owner in the middle of nowhere, throws her good for nothing husband out, a German tourist has a fight with her husband and finds herself at the Bagdad Cafe.  Jasmine (Marianne Sägebrecht) speaks very little English and has no idea what she is going to do, stuck in the middle of nowhere with her husband's suitcase.  Along the way Brenda and Jasmine will change each other and the life of everyone at the Bagdad Cafe.

There is no doubt that this is a strange little movie.  But it's strange in all the right ways.  Pounder's Brenda is faced with utter failure in every direction.  Her husband is a good for nothing, space cadet.  The rest of her family is her music obsessed son ( he plays classical preludes endlessly on a piano in the cafe) and a high school aged daughter who is willing to hook up with each and every man that comes her way.  The motel connected to the cafe has two regular guests before Jasmine arrives.  One is an eccentric, retired Hollywood set painted (played with delightful weirdness by Jack Palance, of all people) and a beautiful tattoo artist with a steady stream of trucker customers who get into her borderline S and M techniques (Christine Kaufmann has exactly one line in the movie).

In the midst of this come Jasmine with a rather other worldly sense of calm.  She will draw the best out of everyone, usually against Brenda's wishes and instincts.  There's no magical underpinnings here to the change, Jasmine's magic is simply a matter of making the connections that Brenda has worked so hard to avoid.

The movie is really belongs entirely to the two female leads.  Marianne Sägebrecht apparently spoke very little English when the movie was made which gives a level of reality to her scenes that would be hard to create.  Pounder is rapidly becoming a character actor favorite of mine.  Her extensive career on television and the movies shows through with a command of her role.

As I watched it I realized that this is one of a trio of female "buddy movies" for me.  It goes along with both "Mystic Pizza" and "The Spitfire Grill".  I don't seem to have reviewed "Mystic Pizza" yet but I do have a review of "The Spitfire Grill" coming next week.  Each center on female stories with strong leads, revolving around stories of redemption and where the men are decidedly second tier roles.  As I've stated here before I have ZERO use for the term "chick flick".  These are classic "buddy movies" with great female story lines.

Not a standard Hollywood movie, and one that utterly lacks a Hollywood ending, this is well worth your time to watch.  I think you will come away as charmed as all the residents of the Cafe.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

From My Shelves - As Time Goes By

("From My Shelves" is an occasional series of posts where I discuss personal favorites from my personal collection)

As Time Goes By (TV series) - A young soldier and nurse fall in love in England in the '50's just before his unit is shipped to Korea.  They don't see each other for decades when he is writing a book and she is running the secretarial service that he hires to help with the project.  They quickly re-discover their shared history and re-build a relationship in the autumn of their lives.

This is one of the boatload of English comedies (Britcoms) that have come to America over the last 40 years.  This one stands out because of it's late life romance story line and stellar cast.  Judi Dench leads the cast as Jean Hardcastle with veteran English actor Geoffrey Palmer as the lost love of her life, Lionel.  The supporting cast (which is quite small, there's only a handful of regulars) is stellar as well.  One of the things we enjoy the most of the show (which I and Lady Phlipside started watching long before we hit the same age as Jean and Lionel) is that they portray the love lives of older folks both respectfully and honestly.

Lionel is a prickly older man who was married, unhappily, years ago.  Since then he has lived as a bachelor and is accustomed to having things just the way he wants.  Suddenly he finds himself in a household dominated by women (Jean and her daughter Judy [Moira Booker] and family friend Sandy [Jenny Funnell]).  The stories are funny and warm and romantic.  Along the way they also touch on some very serious and delicate topics with the same respect and honesty.

"As Time Goes By" ran from 1995 -2002 and the entire series is available on disc.